Greg Wohead on the ingredients that came together for his dark and boundary-pushing show, and the confession tapes of one of the world’s most notorious serial killers.
The idea for The Ted Bundy Project was triggered by an experience I had a while back when I came across a section of the American serial killer’s confession tapes online and was both intrigued and horrified. He confessed to killing around 30 women (though many estimate the actual number to be much higher) between 1974 and 1978, and was normally able to convince people to follow him to his car by faking an injury and asking for help carrying a box or briefcase.
There are so many utterly compelling twists and turns in Ted Bundy’s case that I think anyone would find interesting; he escaped prison twice, he served as his own attorney, he got married in the courtroom during his murder trial (due to a loophole in Florida’s legal system). I did do some research on Ted Bundy for the show, but since in a wider view the show deals with the idea of morbid curiosity, it turned out to be more experiential research rather than factual research.
When I listened to his confession tapes that first time, I felt confronted with the fact that I was listening to a human being. It made me wonder what I was capable of doing myself, almost daring myself to imagine everything that humans have the potential to do. There was a morbid pleasure in listening to the tapes, in disgusting myself and letting my imagination go to horrible places. I guess the piece is my response to that morbid pleasure and an attempt to open up that response in a live space with other people.
I don’t presume to know exactly what’s behind morbid fascination, and I don’t think it’s down to any one thing. In researching this piece, I read a lot of books, talked to several psychologists, psychopathy experts, social workers and neurologists. Some people seem to be sure they know what the interest in serial killers—or more generally, morbid fascination—is all about, but they all say different things.
One of the richest explorations of morbid fascination I came across was a book called Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck: Why We Can’t Look Away by Eric G Wilson. Rather than attempting any sort of definitive explanation, Wilson looks at this pull towards darkness in a series of essays and personal accounts. To me, that seems like an honest way to understand a fascination with serial killers; like most things in life, it isn’t easy to explain or put into a category. It’s slippery and off centre, and I think the way we relate to these things says more about us than we like to think about. I think that might have something to do with why there can be an aspect of pleasure in experiencing it.
Something I’ve thought about a lot during the development of this piece is the difference between the real and fake when it comes to gory or violent stories and imagery (or maybe more interestingly, whether they’re perceived to be real or fake). In his book, Wilson talks about hovering on a border; a sort of sweet spot when it comes to morbid curiosity where we’re far enough away from the trauma to know that we are safe, but close enough for the thrill. A location of the morbid aesthetic where we can touch something sublime.
I think the attraction to or interest in real-life serial killers can provide this sense of potency; these are real people and events that actually happened, so we feel a different kind of thrill in reading books or interviews or watching programmes about them. It could have happened to us. Or maybe in some circumstances we could have been the aggressor. It’s a different kind of thrill than you get from fiction (you can obviously get a thrill from fictional stories and characters, but it has a different quality, I think, and in some ways it can be less potent).
At times, the research for The Ted Bundy Project was difficult. Some research led me to a few dark places online. I guess I wasn’t really that surprised, but it was the first time I became aware of a few online communities specifically centred around sharing real-life gory images and videos from crime scenes or horrific accidents, and in a few cases photos or videos taken by a murderer of the victim. There were definitely some questions that have come up—and still come up—for me about consent and what I am (we are) condoning or supporting when I (we) look at images like that. It’s an uncomfortable headspace to occupy, but I don’t think that means I (we) should shy away from it.
I would say my aim is usually to make a space where people can have an experience rather than just to show them something. In this case I suppose my aim is to make contact with the experience of morbid fascination—which I think we can all identify with—through different kinds of confessions and reconstructions. It’s like an hour set aside to look directly at something we sometimes keep in our peripheral vision because it’s ugly.
The Ted Bundy Project is very different from all of my previous work in a lot of ways. My work before this has been described using words like ‘nostalgic’, ‘lovely’ or ‘whimsical’. I’ve made several storytelling shows, and before I made The Ted Bundy Project people often accused of being twee. So far, people have used lots of different words to describe The Ted Bundy Project, but ‘twee’ has not been one of them.
It’s not so much that I just wanted to try something new with Ted Bundy for the sake of it, but it’s that I wanted to recognise the qualities that existed in myself and my work—the qualities that led people to describe my work as ‘lovely’—and use those qualities to take us all somewhere different or unexpected. That felt appropriate to what I wanted to explore.
For more information on The Ted Bundy Project at Chapter at the end of May click here.
(Photo credits: Alex Brenner)